Volvo 360c plans to fight short-haul flights with autonomous cars

Volvo’s new 360c concept car is far more than just a vehicle. It is an attempt to create a service and supporting architecture to compete with short-haul flights, exploiting the long waits and standing around that is so common in air travel to provide a smoother alternative via autonomous cars.

To some extent, this is Volvo exploring the feasibility of new business models, if it finds itself losing in its core business of selling people cars. With this model, it could shift towards being a transport provider, instead of purely a vehicle provider. This ties in with Riot’s view on Vehicles-as-a-Service, where Volvo would essentially be selling rides or trips, provided by an optimized fleet of its own vehicles, rather than the rather wasteful practice of selling a car that goes unused for the vast majority of its life.

However, this kind of project is very ambitious from the platform perspective. Volvo will need a working self-driving navigation system, likely licensed from Here or TomTom, and then a system that will handle pick-up and drop-off, as well as the ability to purchase.

Refueling could be tense, but should not be much of a problem. From a user experience, pulling into a service station and asking them to fill up a tank would be a bit of a departure from the business-class alternative that Volvo is contemplating. Even a stop to have a human top up the tank would detract somewhat from the vision of autonomy.

At least in a diesel vehicle, a four-hour drive is not much to sweat about. There would easily be enough fuel in the tank to make the trip and then head to a depot, where a staffer could refuel the car and likely carry out a few safety and maintenance checks before it is returned to the fleet.

This range anxiety is going to be more fraught in an EV. The Tesla Model S has a claimed 265-mile range, which at an average speed of 60mph gives it a solid four hours of driving. For the Volvo vision, that’s just enough to compete with the domestic flight time-window, but there’s not much in the way of wiggle room if a major diversion is needed.

Volvo’s Mårten Levenstam, SVP of Product Strategy and Business Ownership, outlined his frustrations. “Typically for me it’s one hour to get to the airport, then one lousy hour at the airport getting through security. Then maybe another hour’s flight, if it’s a short haul. And then one more hour home again. From a consumer point of view, it makes perfect sense to get rid of short haul flights, because it’s a poor experience.”

So if Volvo is aiming at the 1 or 2 hour flight, that provides plenty of options in Europe, and a few options in the US. New York to Chicago is around 2.5 hours in the air, but dotting around the two coastlines is an option. Within Europe, an hour or two’s flying can get you from London to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Berlin, Berlin to Paris, Paris to Barcelona, or Barcelona to Rome.

However, this is where the plan falls over somewhat – the driving distances between those cities are quite inhibitive, if the goal is to drive as far in as long as the airport process takes. Berlin to Paris is an 11-hour drive, Amsterdam to Paris is 6-hours, as is London to Paris. Trips like Frankfurt to Brussels might make sense, clocking in at just over 4-hours, and jumping around Scandinavia is also an option. Trips in northern Europe, around the low-countries, are a viable option for that four-hour window, but if you want to travel between capitals, the train is a quicker option.

This is not to say that the Volvo idea wouldn’t work, but there do seem to be some big constraints on the hubs that it makes most sense for. You’re essentially betting that a car can travel in four hours what a plane can go in one, and that’s not a relationship that scales – as a car typically travels at 60mph while an A320 cruises at 560mph.

Levanstam says that city planners should be thinking ahead to the self-driving ecosystem. Dedicated high-speed autobahns for driverless EVs could make the Volvo concept much more viable, as a car travelling at nearer 100mph would be much more competitive with the plane.

Price could be the major deciding factor. For the luxury of being picked up at your own door and dropped off in just the right place, one expects to be paying a premium. But then, if this is going to be competing with first class or business class short haul flyers, then that’s already a somewhat limited pool. However, these sorts of people are prepared to pay for comfort and convenience, and so there’s definitely an addressable market here if Volvo can prove that it can provide such a service.

The car itself is fully electric and autonomous, although as a concept car, many of the features are not fully realized. It is designed to maximize interior space, providing enough room to recline fully. Visibility looks very good, with a heavily tinted glass to provide privacy. Different configurations show enough room for a sleeper and a side table, or up to four chairs and a table between.

Because of its driverless design, Volvo is designing a way for the cars to interact with people that can no longer gauge intent by looking at the drivers. A directional warning sound can be fired at pedestrians that walk out, with sounds to indicate that the car intends to move off. Audible pulses denote changes in speed or lane, and lights that follow a cyclist down the sides of the car, via lighting strip, are intended to show that the car is aware of the bike’s presence.

As such, this is a different manner of V2X communication, not reliant on standards like C-V2X or 802.11p. This is a direct way to tell other road users what a car is planning on doing, without needing a smartphone or base station as an intermediary. Volvo hopes that its plans can be adopted as a universal standard, much like its original seat belt design was.